Naval bases in 2nd millenium B.C. Egypt

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “Harbours and Coastal Military Bases in Egypt in the Second Millennium B.C. . Avaris, Peru-nefer, Pi-Ramesse“, by Manfred Bietak, sourced from the impressive collective work titled “The Nile-Natural and Cultural Landscape in Egypt” (2017).


During the Middle Kingdom, it seems that settlement in Lower Egypt was concentrated in the eastern part and at the extreme western edge of the Delta. Thus far, however, the greater part of the western half of the deltaic landscape has not yielded any sites of this period. It seems that this situation continued until the time of the New Kingdom.

This concentration of settlements in the eastern Delta had its roots in the physical geography of the Delta already in the Middle Kingdom. One has to face the fact that the western part of the Delta was void of habitation sites. It seems that only the cults at sacred places such as Sais and Buto were kept going, but we have no evidence of settlement there during this period.

There are not many options that might explain this apparent lack of sites. One possibility is that sediment accumulation has caused sites to disappear under substantial layers of Nile mud.

As an alternative hypothesis to explain the void of Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period sites in this area one could also propose that sediment accumulation rates may not have sufficiently compensated for the eustatic rise of the Mediterranean Sea level, a situation which would have led to a long-term submersion, rendering large parts of the western Delta uninhabitable. It seems that even in the Late Period the western central Delta was less inhabited than the eastern part.

It is possible that the central western Delta had a repetitive weakness in respect to sea incursions. There is also the possibility of an additional effect of tsunamis after volcanic or tectonic events in the Aegean or in Asia-minor. With the wetlands inundated and only the levees and mounds emerging, the land would have been deprived of agriculture and flock-keeping and thus of sustenance.

The western – and even more so the easternmost – Nile branches must have been the most suitable water courses also for harbours.

The period of drought between March and early July, when the Nile shrank to one fifth of its average volume, made river navigation very difficult. During this period, seawaters penetrated the nearly empty channels of the Delta and made perennial navigation within the reach of the sea possible. For this reason we find deltaic harbours such as Rashid (Rosette) and Dumiat (Damiette) in locations protected against winter gales.

Tanis served as a harbour for seagoing traffic at least until the fifth century A.D. . Harbours further upstream, beyond the reach of the sea during the months of low river levels, could not provide perennial navigation for sea-bound traffic and had difficulties to reach the Mediterranean for nearly half of the year. On top of such limitations we know from Aramaic custom duty papyri with lists of incoming and outgoing ships from the Persian Period from Elephantine that there was no sea traffic at all during the months Thoth and Paophi (approx. January and February), presumably because of usual fogs and winter gales during this time.

Based on these environmental conditions we can once and for all exclude Memphis as a candidate for the identification with the famous New Kingdom naval base of Peru-nefer. It is unthinkable that the major naval base targeting the Near East was only operational from the second half of July until the end of the year during times of increased Egyptian warfare; and even then, the long distance from the Mediterranean would prolong the reaction of the Egyptian crown to any happenings in the Levant or would render a necessary mission impossible for six months. Therefore, we have to look for an alternative candidate, which was found in a huge harbour basin at Tell el-Dab‘a connected with entry and exit channels to the Nile system within reach of the sea in the second millennium B.C. . It was also situated at the easternmost Nile branch which, besides the so-called Western River, was the major water way during the second millennium B.C. .

This harbour should be identified as the harbour of Avaris, which could accommodate hundreds of ships according to the second stela of Kamose. Military installations and especially a 13 acre palace precinct of the Thutmosid Period, embellished with Minoan wall paintings, make it highly likely that this had also been the famous harbour of Peru-nefer where Keftiu ships were moored and which was a resort where Amenhotep II spent much time as a crown prince and as a king.

The harbour of Avaris, known by the second stela of king Kamose to have accommodated hundreds of ships, was subject to recent paleogeographic studies by a team of the University of Lyon 2 under Hervé Tronchère and Jean-Philippe Goiran, who were able to identify the harbour function according to sediments with precision and to date the activity of the different river branches and the harbour basin itself.

Important for the identification of Tell el-Dab‘a/Avaris as the naval base of Peru-nefer, apparently installed by the Thutmosid kings at the already existing harbour of Avaris, are, besides its geographic position, the large harbour basin and the palatial precinct, the chronology and the stratigraphy of the site.

As new excavations at Tell el-Dab‘a showed that the big harbour basin was reduced in size by sedimentation in its northern part and that buildings invaded its space, it is possible that, at that time, the main harbour was moved somewhere else within this sprawling city which covered approx. 600 hectares. However, the memory of Avaris as the site of a harbour was still alive during the Twentieth Dynasty.

During the late Twentieth Dynasty it seems that the lower reaches of the easternmost branch of the Delta were silted up. The harbour and the residence moved to Tanis.

Paleogeographic studies showed that the easternmost Nile branch was the most important in the second millennium B.C. and the most convenient connection to the Near East.

The Canaanite cults in Avaris from the Second Intermediate Period seem to have a continuum in Peru-nefer in the Eighteenth Dynasty and in Pi-Ramesse during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasty.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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